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The TypeBooks Interview with Michael Leary
Published earlier this year by Hayden Books, Web Designer's Guide to Typography is the first book from Michael Leary of Galapagos Design Group. His book explores an area of the Web that most people know little of and only a few know enough to write about--type on the Web. Mr. Leary has done a great job of relating long-standing principles of typography, how to achieve them with technology the Web currently offers and does so without losing you in excessive techno-babble. This assures that it will always be valuable despite inevitable changes in technology.
"The great thing about the type industry is that it is beginning to address the needs of a global society."TB: Welcome to TypeBooks, Mr. Leary. Could you tell us a little about yourself--how did you get started in typography?
ML: It all started on a cold day in February, 1989 at the hallowed halls of Agfa Corporation, then known as Compugraphic Corporation. Having majored in art in college, I answered an ad in the newspaper looking for digital artists. At the time, I knew little of the difference between an OldStyle and Modern typeface. However, I had a very good eye for letter structure. And so, the odyssey began...first editing bitmap letters and then moving into the design of "scalable outlines". Heaven forbid!! The notion that one digital representation of a letterform could be scaled to many sizes was an outrageous one. I had been used to designing by turning on and off the black pixels that make up the letterforms. But this? What would we do once every font was designed as a scalable outline? We'd be out of jobs! Little did I know that I would be toiling away 14 years later on the very same Helvetica and Times!
I moved onto Bitstream, Inc. where I honed my skills as a typographic designer and "hinter". Hinting is a process by which a character is rendered to look much more readable at smaller text sizes. Hinting focuses on the repeatable structures that make up a typestyle's persona and works to ensure the creation of clean, uniform letters.
In 1994, I, along with four other designers, founded Galapagos Design Group, an independent digital type foundry. It has been a wonderful opportunity to start my own company and to be directly involved in the decisions being made in our industry. Ah yes, where once I was a young, naive type designer, I now continue on the same path, only now much older and much more jaded--I mean wise!
TB: Aside from what I believe was an obvious need for your indispensable book, what was the inspiration for it?
ML: It was obvious to me that there was a growing number of web page designers who were developing their online wares and displaying them for the world to see. They were doing this with little if no regard for an audience which was being blinded by such ill-conceived content and layout. The intent of Web Designer's Guide to Typography was to provide a resource for experienced web designers to use in educating them on typographic usage, as it related to the low resolution and confinement of the computer screen. The book was also created as a guide for typographers and other designers that are familiar with the application of type. It covers those applications the typographer would find useful in building typographic images and provided tutorials. A portion of the book is dedicated (for everyone's pleasure, mind you!) to the future of type, where it is heading and how Cascading Style Sheets works to make online type more functional.
TB: Did you have reservations writing about something where the standards are still evolving?
ML: No, I didn't. Having been in this industry for quite a while, I know that technology evolves rapidly. Part of the problem with understanding these typographic standards and technological changes is that little documentation is ever published (except with the respective foundries themselves) to address the functionality and benefits of such changes. Before you know it, another change is made and what was once a standard, is now no more. Web Designer's Guide to Typography is an attempt at getting something down on paper about where type is headed, how it should be used and what benefits it affords the web designer.
The great thing about the changes going on today with the type industry is that it is beginning to address the needs of a global society. With new and future font standards, one will be able to purchase a font that contains letterforms from several languages, character substitution, and the correct positioning of far eastern letterforms. This innovation leads to flexibility, which leads to creativity--and the Muse is happy!
TB: Given the hybrid subject of type + Web, was there a inordinately large amount of research involved in producing this book?
ML: There was a great deal of information to cover and yet I was very fortunate in that I have surrounded myself with some of the greatest designers and minds in the type industry. They are walking encyclopedias of typographic knowledge. And being a small company, Galapagos Design has been able to adapt to the needs of the market and to the changes in technology. Because of this, I am very familiar with the latest changes in font standards.
I have always had a great interest in the World Wide Web as a communications tool. It is so blatantly obvious when one's eyes come to rest on a wonderfully structured Website. There is usually a simplicity about it, a clarity that enables the viewer to navigate comfortably. I worked with several web page designers in educating myself about their processes. It was an exhaustive process that took place in a very short time. I have aged greatly since I commenced this project. Obviously, an invaluable experience.
TB: Chapter 14 of your book briefly discusses font embedding for web documents. In light of recent discoveries concerning the security of embedding fonts, do you think this is still a good idea?
ML: That is a very interesting question. Our industry has come together to address this issue and has found that there are limitations when it comes to font embedding. The questions to be answered are these: Do we try an provide the best font security we can and just hope for the best? Is it the responsibility of the type industry to make sure no one steals fonts? It is the desire of most industry members to provide an environment where fonts (not font objects or recorded font images) are used to display text on screen. Presently, there are no failsafe ways to ensure the safety of fonts from thieves. We need a LoJack system for font embedding!
Is it still a good idea to embed fonts? Yes, I think it is the best answer we have as the technology stands. I am extremely happy to see the majority of font developers (who would normally fracture off into smaller political factions) work together on this issue. I think we are truly seeking a solution to the problem.
"The Web unites the world into one global audience. It is Main Street Earth."TB: Do you have plans to write another book--perhaps a second edition of this one?
ML: Well, now--the fun questions! Yes, I have made a few proposals and hope to work on one of them in the near future. I doubt that there will be a second edition of Web Designer's Guide to Typography. As you have made comment to, the topics within the book will evolve quickly. I can see where several of those topics could become their own books. Certainly OpenType and future revisions of the CSS language will be covered and written about. I think I will leave that to another enterprising soul. One of the proposed ideas I have (now don't tell anyone--shhhh!) is a kind of Portable Web Curmudgeon, a book that covers what we dislike, abhor, hate and find repulsive about web page design. The book would cover many aspects of web page layout and its adverse effects on the viewer--topics such as downloading graphics time, badly colored type, overly populated web pages, etc. To express the grief and frustration at using the Web and how to "recycle" our web environments so that we are free from the litter and web-spam--such a lofty goal!
TB: The Web is now attracting designers from other disciplines since it has increasingly more control over type and layout. What effect do you see this having on design?
ML: Well, I am certain it will have a short term negative effect on design. Part of this will be from a lack of education in effective composition and layout. The other part of this will be due to a lack of robust tools to work with (although the choice of applications is getting better!) The Web has begun to facilitate more control, but many of the applications being used presently promise more control and do not deliver. Can I say "malarkey"? OK, it's a bunch of malarkey! These applications provide large manuals that few people read from cover to cover and now that most software comes on CD-ROM and the documentation needs to be printed out (Yeah, right!) few are reading the documentation at all! I don't want to paint too bleak a picture! As with all things, it takes time. The introduction of more web designers from varying creative fields will provide more interesting ideas! What is needed is for the designer to attain a strong foundation in typographic usage and page layout. And to truly get your web pages to do what you want still requires a strong knowledge of the HTML language.
TB: The Web is maturing fast when compared to the history of other forms of media. Could you speculate on where it might go from here, design-wise?
ML: Have you seen what's out there on the Web lately? I may find it hard to call the Web a maturing environment. It certainly has proclaimed its identity alongside other media outlets and is growing in its capabilities. But let me speculate further! I think everyone with a computer (and I believe that will be most households in the near future) will have their own Websites. It will be much akin to having your name in the White Pages--but only more interactive and much more intrusive! Design-wise, I think the Web will be affected stylistically by the changing times, as is music, film, books, fashion, art and cars. We go through cycles when it is acceptable to wear platform shoes and within a year we are wearing Earthshoes! From VW Bugs to AMC Pacers, from cubism to minimalism--so too will the Web go. The new and fascinating thing about the Web is that it unites the world into one global audience. It is Main Street Earth--so while it changes and transmogrifies, it will also provide stability to those who insist on it. In one word, the Web is "dynamic" and the design of it will reflect that.
TB: What are your likes and/or dislikes about the Web?
ML: My only dislike regarding the Web is that some web page developers do not have good foundations in text and page layout and do not understand the concept of "navigation". It is vital for a web page to entice the viewer into navigating about its site. Also, with the output device being the low resolution of the computer or television screen, there are ways to provide for quicker downloads as well as more enjoyable interaction. Beyond that, I rather enjoy the Web and hopes it continues to grow.
TB: Digital signature technology is spilling over from the software industry and now looms over computer fonts. Since they offer no real solution for countering font piracy, do you believe digital signatures will be beneficial for the end-user or will it needlessly complicate the process of licensing a font? And how do you feel digital signatures would affect the foundries and the independent type designers.
"Font developers will reap the reward & feel the wrath of the end user as they see fonts go the way of applications."ML: In the short term, it will be of grave concern to the end user. It will affect them adversely because the fonts they had previously purchased that do not contain digital signatures will be rendered useless in future versions of computer operating systems and applications. Our industry has delivered to its user a wonderful thing these many years. PostScript and TrueType fonts are different from applications in that no matter what operating system or application upgrade, they still work. There is no upgrade required for fonts, unless the customer desires to add more characters or customize it some way. They then go to their font developer and have them make the desired changes. Now, font libraries will have to be upgraded to include digital signatures. The effect will be less on the font developers. They will reap the reward of having to upgrade the fonts for their customers. However, they will also feel the wrath of the end user as they see fonts go the way of applications.
TB: Do you mean foundries will have to deal with angry mobs of people who feel they're being forced to upgrade? And will the foundries need to provide more tech support to their customers as most software vendors do?
ML: Angry mobs? That may be a little harsh. However, end users have always counted on their existing fonts to work successfully, even as the applications that use them became more complex. These same users get frustrated upgrading their software so often. And they will be forced to upgrade their fonts. I do not think the cost will be prohibitive. Unfortunately, it will be more of a concern and/or a nuisance to the end user and the last thing we want to do as font developers is frustrate or concern our existing customer base. We are all creatures of habit. When something is working, why fix it? But there will be no choice in the matter.
As for technical support for this upgrade, the idea is to make the process as seamless as possible. A customer should be able to get new versions of their existing fonts and they should work as the previous versions do. The addition of digital signatures will not affect the integrity of the font file.
TB: What is your take on the US Copyright Office's current policy of denying protection for type designs?
ML: Fonts are now programs. What used to be digital files containing data to create letterforms in a specific character set, we now have fonts that perform glyph substitution, contain tables that affect letterspacing as well as containing instructions that control how the letterforms act at specific sizes at specific resolutions on varying output devices! It is my hope that we can move fonts under the heading of programs, bringing them the same protection that most software enjoys. This has not been the case so far.
TB: Is there anything you would like to say to someone who may be just starting to design for the Web?
ML: To the novice designer: Take some time to learn the basics of page and design layout. Composition is everything. A web page is meant to convey information. Anything that gets in the way of that is unnecessary. It is essential that you have this knowledge. With it, the creative Muse can feel free to roam. Never stop the Muse!
TB: Thank you for being our guest, Mr. Leary. And congratulations on your book, I'm definitely looking forward to seeing more from you.